Sailing ship types: Glossary

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Sailing ship types: glossary

Applicable items in this glossary – and others as they are written – will appear below articles in this category. Hopefully it will end up being a useful ready-reference of nautical terms to do with the Age of Sail and other nautical articles.

Terms in bold will signify their inclusion as an item elsewhere in the glossary.

Abaft: behind, at the back of the ship compared to something else on the ship. Abaft the beam is any direction or bearing between the beam of the ship and its stern – the opposite to before the beam.

Abeam: at right angles to the stem to stern line of the ship.

Abreast: when a vessel is abeam another vessel or some other identified point it is said to be abreast of that object.”Line Abreast” refers to ships moving in a line beside each other.

Aft: nautical for after, towards the stern. At the back of the boat. If it is relative, it should be “abaft” as in “a yawl’s aft mast is abaft the tiller post.”

Astern: backwards or behind. It can mean either reverse movement or the direction straight behind the ship. “Line astern” refers to ships moving one after the other – a sort of nautical “Indian file.”.

Beak: the metal ram at the bow of a war galley. A construction of the same name and more or less the same shape was retained in sailing ships, partly as a brace for the bowsprit but also for other purposes. (See beakhead)

Beakhead: that part of the beak immediately before and below the forecastle. It was attached to the vessel from cathead to cat headand its wide portion was slung with rope netting or wooden grating and open to the sea. This space, usually washed clean in any sort of sea, was used as a lavatory by the crew; hence the modern term “head” meaning toilet.

Beam: (1): the width of a ship. The measurement at its widest point.

(2) any of the timbers, parts of the transverse frame of the ship, to which the deck boards are fixed.

Bermudian (now usually referred to as "Bermuda”) refers to a triangular mainsail (rear sail) used on yachts and other craft since the early 20th century. It is more efficient, especially up-wind, than the gaff-sail, but requires a longer mast.

Boom: normally the spar or pole attached at one end to the mast and to which the foot of a sail is attached. It is usually used in fore-and-aft rigging, although the long yards holding lateen sails can also be referred to as booms. It can also refer to a pole projecting out from the hull of a vessel such as the bowsprit.

Bow. The front of a boat. The “pointy end”.

Bowsprit. The boom projecting from the bow of a sailing vessel to which can be attached the forestaysails, also known as headsails, the leading one of which is referred to as the jib. Sometimes, during the Age of Exploration and after, a square-rigged sail would be set from it, or even from a tiny mast on it.

Catheads were sturdy timbers, shaped to the bow of a ship, and projecting out from either side of the bow for holding the ship’s anchors.

A clew is a corner of a sail by which it is trimmed - that is the sheet is tautened or loosened so that the sail is set at the best angle to catch the wind. On a triangular sail the clew is at the bottom aft. On a square sail there are clews at the two bottom corners where one or other of the sheets can be shortened or loosened to alter the angle of the sail.

Deck: the word has an interesting history – originally meaning a roof or canopy over the rowers or archers on a Mediterranean war galley. As ships became bigger and cannon replaced archers the “roof” became sturdy enough to be walked on, then to carry its own cannon (gundeck). Ships have not always had decks – Viking ships had no decks. The first “three-decker” was “Sovereign of the Seas”, launched in 1637.

Derrick was a 16th century hangman who invented a means whereby he could follow his trade without hurting his back. The use of a swiveling boom or spar with the appropriate block and tackle arrangement – these days used to bring cargo on and off a ship – is still called a derrick.

Draught (draft) is the depth of water a vessel draws. The less the draught of a vessel, the shallower the water inwhich it can operate.

Flotsam: goods or equipment accidentally lost overboard from a vessel at sea; or has floated to the surface from a wrecked vessel. It varies from "jetsam" which describes items deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) – usually to lighten the vessel when it is in trouble – and "lagan", which can refer to jettisoned items secured to a buoy for future retrieval – though there are other meanings for that last term, including items lying on the ocean floor either in or out of a submerged vessel. There are long and complicated legal definitions for each term.

Fore-and-aft rigging refers to sails that are set along a line between bow and stern of a vessel. Obviously, depending on the direction of the wind in relation to the intended course of the ship, those sails attached to booms and/or gaffs* will be set at some sort of angle. Your standard yacht has fore-and-aft rigging.

Forecastle, these days, is the space below the forward deck. It was, in the Middle Ages, indeed up to the development of the galleon, a raised portion of a ship from which archers and (later) musketeers could fire down on the enemy ship. It is pronounced “fo’c’sle".

Gaff-rigged refers to a spar attached, by means of a fixture that allows it to swivel and be raised and lowered, to a mast. To it can be “hung” a square sail with its bottom corners usually attached to a boom. This is “gaff-rigged” and is one of the two common forms of rigging for the mainsail on yachts and other fore and aft rigged boats and ships. (The other is Bermudian.)

Gaff topsail is a triangular sail that uses the gaff of the gaff-sail below it as its boom.

Heads: Nautical vernacular for toilets on board ships. (See beakhead.)

Jetsam: see flotsam.

The Keel, historically, is the "spine" of a ship. It is the lowest part of the vessel and to it are attached the stem and sternpost, the ribs and the bottom strakes. In nearly all sailing ships, the masts are "bedded" into it. With the advent of steel in ships, then the prolification of pleasure craft, especially racing yachts, the variations in shape, size, number and even function of keels has given the term too much weight to be treated in a mere "glossary".

Lagan: see flotsam.

Leeward: (pronounced loo’ard) downwind; the opposite of windward. To be in the “lee” of something is to have that something between you and the wind. A ”lee shore” is potentially dangerous for a sailing vessel as the wind is blowing the vessel towards that coast.

Leeway: the distance a ship is moved from its intended course by a cross wind or current.

Lug-sails are trapezoidal four sided, attached to booms and slung to the mast much like the lateen rig of the dhow and usually set fore-and-aft

Mizzen refers to the aft mast. The one at the stern.

Port: See Port and Starboard.

Rig (or rigged) refers to the type and configuration of the sails on a sailing vessel. The difference between a sloop and a brig is usually their rig. Remove the square-rig sails from the aft mast (mizzen]] of a three masted full-rigged ship and you are left with a barque.

Rigging refers to all those ropes, chains etc. that support the masts, yards and booms or are used to trim the sails, or to hoist and lower them. The rigging used to support the masts and yards called “standing rigging”.

A Sheet (strangely to non-nautical ears) is not a sail but a length of rope. It is a line that is attached to a clew and is therefore the means whereby a sail is trimmed to gain its greatest efficiency. A ship with sheets improperly set is liable to lurch and wallow in the wind, giving cause to the phrase “three sheets to the wind”, meaning drunk.

Shrouds are those lines that run from the masts to either side of the hull of a vessel to give the masts lateral support as apart from the stays which give support fore and aft. They usually come in groups with short lines between them to enable the crew to use them as ladders. These are called "ratlines".

Square-rigged refers to the set of the sails on what most people would consider the classic large sailing ship – the galleon or the clipper for example, or any large warship of the age of sail. The sails are set across the bow to stern line of the vessel and are four-sided and attached to yards that can be angled according wind direction. (Very few vessels in the last 500 years have been purely square-rigged – almost every ship has had triangular staysails set between the masts or from the foremast to the bow and most have a gaff-sail on its stern-most mast – usually called a “spanker” – whether or not there is square rigging on that mast.)

Starboard: see Port and Starboard

Stays are those lines of rigging that support the masts fore and aft as apart from the shrouds which give the masts lateral support.

Staysail: refers to a triangular sail set between two masts with two corners attached to the aftmost. (This corner is called the clew and it is here that the sail is trimmed by tightening or loosening it.) If set from the foremast it is called a headsail or forestaysail. If there is only one on the foremast that sail is called the jib. If more than one headsail, then jib refers only to the topmost.

Stem refers to the foremost part of the hull of a vessel, It is usually attached to the keel (if there is one) and rises up out of the water as the "pointy end" of a vessel. To it are attached the strakes.

Stern The back of the boat. The blunt end.

Sternpost: a hefty piece of timber attached to and rising from the keel and forming the main brace for the stern of the vessel. The original rudders (from the middle of the 13th century in Europe) were hung from it although later, in vessels of any size, the rudder had its own post.

Strakes refer to the longitudinal planks of a wooden vessel that, attached to the ribs from the keel to the top of the sides, make up the hull. A craft can be referred to as being carvel- or clinker-built, depending on the way the strakes are put together.

Studdingsails (pronounced "stuns'ls") were additional square sails set on booms on either side of the sails on a square-rigged vessel. They were only used in fine weather with the wind abaft the beam (that is, from behind a line drawn at right angles across the vessel) and their purpose was to get every last ounce of speed out of the vessel, by increasing the sail capacity.

Trim: the term is usually meant to adjust the sails to the most favourable setting to catch the wind. This is normally done by tautening or loosening the sheets. It can also refer to the position of a vessel in the water, which can be trimmed by moving cargo or ballast fore or aft so that the craft is “balanced”.

Windward: the opposite of leeward. Up wind. The direction from which the wind is blowing.

Yard refers to the spar (pole) which is attached more or less half way along its length to a mast. The portions on either side are called “yardarms.” To yards are attached the standard four sided sails of the square-rigged ship. The term also refers to the cross-spar atop a lateen sail or with the trapezoid lug sails of a lugger.

To be continued...